Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2010

It's A Wonderful Sunset

The Earned Emotion of Sunset Playhouses ITS A WONDERFUL LIFE

By Russ Bickerstaff
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There are countless challenges and difficulties with bringing one of the most beloved holiday films in history to a live theatre stage. The Sunset Playhouse does an admirable job of this with its production of Itís A Wonderful Life. Adapted for the stage several years ago by playwright James Rodgers, the stage adaptation is a strong distillation of Frank Capraís original film lovingly brought to a spacious Sunset Playhouse¬†stage in Elm Grove courtesy of exiting Artistic Director Mark Salentine.

The Michael Desper set is far from his best work, but it does the job of bringing a multi-location story to the stage quite competently. A walk high above the stage represents the bridge on which our hero George Bailey is contemplating suicide.. Thereís a large rear-projected digital background that helps to set the mood. Sets in the foreground rotate below the bridge. Itís all remarkably effective, but not terribly pretty.¬†

Randall Anderson is endearingly charming as George Bailey. Itís not easy to pick-up a role so synonymous with screen actor Jimmy Stewart. Anderson makes it look easy, casually walking into the role of a man who genuinely wants to help people for the ake of helping them. Thereís an earnestness in Andersonís performance that informs on every aspect of the show. It canít be easy to hold down the sentimental core of a story that mightíve seemed a bit unctuous even sixty years ago. Andersonís Bailey manages to make the story of a man willing to sacrifice everything for others seem not only plausible, but completely natural. Andersonís success seems to come from letting the character of George Bailey happen. A nice guy of this caliber would likely seem forced when rendered for the stage by most actors. Anderson walks though the events of the play with a very organic approach to the stresses and conflicts that arise, resulting in a very believable Bailey. This is such a relief for anyone expecting a weak impression of Jimmy Stewart in the role.

One of the biggest factors in making the characterís emotions seem natural is his romance with Mary Hatch. Mary is played here by Ruth Arnell. The romantic match-up between Anderson and Arnell works exceedingly well. The role isnít that much of a challenge for Arnellóan actress who has proven capable of some considerable range in the past. The role of Mary doesnít give Arnell much of a challenge beyond being Baileyís love interest and, later, the mother of his childrenóbut to her credit, Arnell doesnít try to embellish anything into the role that isnít already there. The subtlety of a very delicate romantic chemistry comes across quite vividlyósomething Arnell had shown stunning talent for in an intimate production of Butterflies Are Free some time ago with Spiral Theatre.

The rest of the cast is a bit patchy. There is some real potential in there mixed-in with some less than impressive performances, but director Mark Salentine does a brilliant job of juggling it all for the stage in a very lean, very organic production that comes across with a kind of genuine emotion Capra seemed to have abandoned in the original film. Capraís treatment of the story radiated a kind of sentimentality that made it a bit difficult to swallow. The Sunset Playhouse production plays the sentimentality of the story on a much more even keel, making the emotions feel that much more earned than they do in the plays cinematic predecessor. Itís not as polished or perfectly framed as Capraís classicóand it certainly isnít as pretty, but this is a Wonderful Life definitely worth a trip to Elm Grove.

Sunset Playhouseís production of Itís A Wonderful Life¬†runs through December 19th. For tickets call 262-782-4430.¬†

 

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